CLEVELAND – On a day of relentless rain, one big drop doomed the Chargers.
San Diego wide receiver Robert Meachem let a certain touchdown pass from Philip Rivers slip through his hands in the third quarter and the Chargers lost their third straight game, 7-6 on Sunday to the Cleveland Browns, who gashed the NFL's second-best rushing defense for 133 yards on the ground.
Trent Richardson ran for 122 yards and broke several San Diego tackles on a 26-yard TD run in the first quarter as the Browns (2-6) did just enough to slide past the Chargers (3-4), who managed only two field goals by Nick Novak and struggled for three hours in raw, blustery conditions that hardly felt like home.
"It's one of those games you get this time of the year on this side of the country," said Rivers. "But that's not an excuse."
The Chargers are running out of reasons for the losing.
After blowing second-half leads in consecutive losses to New Orleans and Denver, San Diego spent its bye week regrouping before preparing for the Browns, a young team that has been competitive but unable to close out wins. The Chargers figured Cleveland would be the place to turn things around.
Instead, they're still headed in the wrong direction.
It started poorly for San Diego's offense, which got stopped on a fourth-and-1 at the Cleveland 30-yard line to end its first drive. The Browns then scored the first time they had the ball with Richardson running roughshod through San Diego's secondary for what became the game's only touchdown.
With the howling winds off Lake Erie making every pass, punt and kick an adventure, points were at a premium. And the Browns ended up with one more than the Chargers.
"Well, the conditions didn't help," said Rivers, who finished 18 of 34 for 154 yards but hasn't led the Chargers to a touchdown in six quarters. "It wasn't like there was going to be a lot of points out there."
The Chargers, though, looked as if they might get the one big play they desperately needed on their second possession of the third quarter. On third-and-9, Meachem slipped behind Cleveland's defensive backs and was wide open at about the 25-yard line as he awaited Rivers' throw.
But when the ball arrived, Meachem failed to catch what would have been a certain 51-yard TD pass.
"I took my eyes off of it," Meachem said. "I thought about scoring first before I caught the ball. Big play in the game. Big-time player make big-time plays, and that's a play you have to make in a game like this. It could have been the momentum changer. You never know."
Richardson, pulled last week at Indianapolis when he was ineffective because of a rib cartilage injury, carried 24 times as the Browns gave new owner Jimmy Haslam his first win since taking over the franchise. Haslam was presented with a game ball by coach Pat Shurmur in Cleveland's jubilant locker room.
"It feels good," linebacker D'Qwell Jackson said of rewarding Haslam, who shelled out $1.05 billion for the Browns. "You always want to put a smile on his face."
Richardson's TD to cap Cleveland's first drive was like many they used to get from the incomparable Jim Brown, who the Hall of Famer either outran or carried defenders to the end zone. It was No. 32 who helped make the Browns one of the league's most storied teams, and Cleveland has a new runner who may one day get them back to the top.
Two plays after quarterback Brandon Weeden converted on a fourth-and-1 with a sneak to keep the drive alive, Richardson took a handoff up the middle, broke two tackles and was kept upright by right guard Shawn Lauvao, who wrapped his hands around his teammate, before scampering in for his fifth TD.
Richardson said once he was deep in San Diego's secondary there was no stopping him.
"They don't want no problems," he said.
Because of the bad weather, the Chargers, too, were forced to run and Ryan Mathews picked up 95 yards on 24 attempts.
Novak kicked field goals of 43 and 31 yards for San Diego, but the Chargers couldn't put together a TD drive and coach Norv Turner will have to spend the early part of this week — the Chargers host Kansas City on Thursday — answering questions about what's wrong with his team.
Turner has been under fire for his team's recent skid, and the scrutiny is bound to intensify after losing to a Browns team that staggered in with one win.
"It is an extremely challenging situation for our football team," Turner said. "I expect each one of them in that room, coaches and players to meet the challenge we put ourselves in and respond."
While Turner refused to single out one play as the difference, Meachem knew he may have cost his team a win.
"It hurts bad," he said. "I can't speak for anyone else, but I feel like if I make the play, game over. Our defense was playing solid at that point. You have to make that play, like I said, 'game over.' Those are just plays you have to make. You can't make excuses, you just have to make the play."
NOTES: Chargers KR Richard Goodman injured his hamstring returning the opening kickoff and did not return. ... Rivers made his 103rd consecutive start, second to only Eli Manning (127) among all active QBs. ... TE Antonio Gates had just two catches for 14 yards as the Browns did a nice job covering one of San Diego's primary targets. ... P Mike Scifres averaged 46.5 yards on six punts in less-than-ideal kicking conditions.
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